They Follow The Road Less Traveled Young Mormon Missionaries From All Walks Of Life Are In Camden Spreading The Word.

Posted: May 12, 1997

CAMDEN — The two young men from Utah were getting double-takes from residents along Bailey and Seventh Streets in North Camden, even those who had seen them before.

With their white shirts, conservative ties, backpacks and name tags, the pair looked strangely out of place.

They didn't seem to care.

They were on a mission from God.

Brian Rosander and Nathan Agren passed litter, broken glass and dilapidated rowhouses, then rounded a corner near firefighters who were pouring water into two smoldering houses.

``You must have a lot of courage and a lot of heart. . . . This is a high-crime area,'' Sylvia Surles told the pair when they showed up at her Bailey Street house.

``But I guess nobody wants to mess with you because nobody wants to mess with God.''

Rosander and Agren are elders - or missionary teachers - in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, spreading the gospel of their faith to dozens of North Camden residents each day, often into the night.

They're members of a team of 16 spit-and-polish Mormon missionaries who fan out across the city, usually riding bikes to church buildings in the morning, then striking out on foot, two by two.

About 190 elders and sisters are serving at their own expense in an area from East Brunswick to Cape May. A similar number serve the rest of the state. About 55,000 missionaries are stationed around the world.

``We're from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,'' Rosander told a man who came to the door of a house on Erie Street in North Camden. ``Have you ever heard of that church before?''

``Yeah,'' said Danny Cruz, 23, an Orlando, Fla., man who grew up in Camden and was visiting his parents.

``Good,'' said Rosander. ``. . . Danny, what we're talking about is how our families can be strengthened through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Do you think it would help you?''

``It probably would,'' said Cruz, who is married and has three children. ``I'm open to other things.''

The two encouraged Cruz to meet with missionaries when he returned to Orlando, then walked to an appointment with Surles, a grandmother who was baby-sitting three grandchildren.

``Missionaries like ourselves have been here for a while, so the reputation we have is good,'' said Rosander. ``People know we are teaching about God . . . but you notice, we do stick out a little bit.''

* Young men in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are offered the opportunity to volunteer as missionaries when they turn age 19, young women when they turn 21.

They're sent to one of the 330 missions in the United States and other countries around the world, receiving language training before they leave, if necessary.

And once they get there, the elders are often shifted from community to community within their assigned area. Someone in South Jersey, for instance, may serve in Clementon, Atlantic City and Camden.

Camden is often not seen as a plum assignment - initially. Many missionaries come from far different environments in Western states and have never seen rowhouses or had contact with many other cultures.

``Most think, `What did I do wrong?' '' said Glen Sanford, president of New Jersey Cherry Hill Mission of the church, based in Mount Laurel. ``But after about four days of adjustment, they really like it.''

Elder David Black, 20, a Maple Shade resident who works at the Mount Laurel mission office, said his Salt Lake City, Utah, home was a long way from Camden - in more ways than miles.

``The climate's different; the culture is different; the backgrounds of people are different,'' said Black, who served in the city last summer and fall. ``I had never seen rowhouses, the way people lived here, so close together.

``But there are a lot of good people in Camden who are looking to better their lives.''

Some of the missionaries have been mugged by gunmen and had their bicycles stolen in the city. They draw attention with their appearance and sometimes appear to be easy targets of crime.

``There's concern once in a while,'' said Black. ``But you just leave it in the Lord's hands and talk to people.''

Elder Martin Miller, 23, a Los Angeles resident who served in Camden on and off for the last two years and is now assigned to the Asbury Park and Neptune areas of Monmouth County, said he was held up at gunpoint twice in East Camden.

``By and large, we have not had many problems,'' he said. ``I gave up the wallet [in the robberies]. We usually carry a dummy load wallet with five dollars - nothing irreplaceable, nothing you'd care about losing.''

Miller said a few other elders also had reported robberies, maybe three or four over the last few years. But he said the overall response of the city had been warm.

The church averages about six converts a month, sometimes up to 10, said Sanford. Two years ago, it had 450 members; today, it has 600. An English-speaking congregation meets at Broadway and Cooper Street in downtown Camden, and Vietnamese- and Spanish-speaking congregations meet at separate times at 27th and Federal Streets in East Camden.

* The missionaries start their days about 6:30 a.m. In their shared apartments, they exercise for about half an hour, shower, eat breakfast, get dressed, study Scripture for couple hours, then plan the day.

By 10 a.m., they head out - in pairs - on foot or on bikes to share their beliefs with 30 or 40 people during the day. They won't return until 9 or 9:30 p.m.

``We are organized in companionships,'' said Elder Jared Fowler, 21, an Eagle River, Alaska, resident who shares an apartment with three other missionaries and has been serving in East Camden for a month.

``We're sent out like the Bible says, two by two, to preach the gospel to every kindred, tongue, nation and people.''

Dressed in their Sunday best, the missionaries have been a familiar, albeit incongruous sight, walking down Ferry Avenue, or going door-to-door in North Camden.

``On my part, I am used to sticking out,'' Miller said. ``Some people have responded, saying we're a little odd or out of place. I kind of like it. It makes it easy to approach people. They know right offhand that you're different and are there for a reason.''

At the home of Sylvia Surles last week, Rosander and Agren knocked on the door, where a sign discouraged unwanted visitors: ``If this applies to you, don't go away mad, just go. You cannot borrow. No, we will not lend. . . . No, this is not a grocery store, bank or loan office, so don't knock to ask. And this goes for everybody, even you.''

Surles invited the missionaries into her dining room where they sat down to casually talk. Then, they described their church's beliefs - but not before Rosander opened in prayer: ``Our Father in Heaven, we thank thee so much for this day and the chance we've had to come to this home to meet Sylvia and her family.''

After meeting for an hour, Rosander asked Surles whether she would prepare to be baptized, by studying the Scriptures and praying.

``Yes,'' she said.

Minutes later, the two left for their next appointment. A gusty thunderstorm was blowing into the city as they walked down Erie Street.

``We'll be fine,'' said Rosander. ``We're used to this.''

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